Lydia Ko’s decision to drop the only coach the 16-year-old has ever known is creating a giant stir back in New Zealand.
Even Kiwi caddie Steve Williams, who knows something about controversial splits, weighed in with strong words on news that Ko is leaving Guy Wilson of New Zealand’s Institute of Golf. Williams called the move “shocking” and “unethical” in an interview with Radio New Zealand.
Ko will be going to work with David Leadbetter, who told GolfChannel.com Monday that he was well aware of the sensitivities that would be involved with Ko making a switch.
“We were a little reluctant,” Leadbetter told GolfChannel.com. “We were very aware of the relationship she had with her coach, and we treaded lightly, but they approached us. When somebody of that ilk asks, you don’t turn them down.”
There’s more behind the emotional reaction to Ko’s decision than just coaching implications. For New Zealanders, it’s about her Kiwi connections and nationalistic pride. In fact, in presenting news of the coaching change, a Television New Zealand reporter asked if it might “signal a shift away from New Zealand Golf.”
Ko is something of a national treasure in New Zealand, and her rise in fame has brought with it concerns over loyalties and how she plans to align herself in the future. During Ko’s first news conference after announcing she was turning pro in October, New Zealand media peppered her with questions about where she planned to establish her professional base and even what nationalistic affiliation she planned for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Ko was born in South Korea but her family moved to New Zealand when she was 6. She became a New Zealand citizen when she was 12. That evolved partly out of her former coach’s push for citizenship so Ko would become eligible for national funding. In fact, New Zealand Golf has funded Ko’s world travels the last three years. There are questions back in New Zealand over whether Ko will re-establish her connection to South Korea, where women’s golf is immensely popular and more endorsement opportunities for women abound.
Ko, who turned pro in October, has won five professional events, three this year. She’s No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
Williams, who had a controversial split as caddie with Tiger Woods, quickly leaped to defense of Wilson, the Kiwi coach who first taught Ko how to swing when she was just 6 and has guided her until this split.
“Obviously, he’s tremendously upset about what happened,” Williams told Radio New Zealand. “I think it’s pretty unethical myself what has occurred . . . I don’t think he had any inkling, and I guess that is why it has come as such a shock, and probably not the ideal time of the year, either, at Christmas time.
“I can’t actually fathom that when you have had such a tremendous run and you’ve been with somebody for such a long period of time. Guy’s been with her every step of the way. I find it a baffling decision, to be honest.”
Leadbetter said he and Leadbetter Academy staffer Sean Hogan will share duties coaching Ko. Williams said he didn’t have a problem with Leadbetter as a new coach, but he questioned the nature of the family’s break with Wilson.
“It is not who she has chosen,” Williams said. “It’s the fact that she has decided to drop the person who has dedicated his life, or 10 years of his life, to get her where she is.
“He has spent all his own time and had no compensation for the time and effort he has put in. You could understand if the player was having poor results, or a breakdown in the relationship, but from what I gather talking to Guy, who I know personally, he is shell-shocked. He doesn’t feel he was in a situation he should be dropped.”
Wilson released a statement confirming the switch.
“While I’m incredibly disappointed that our 11-year partnership is over, I respect Lydia and her team’s decision,” Wilson said.
The Ko family took their time carefully considering Lydia’s transition to the professional ranks. Nothing appeared rushed. Now, with the start of her LPGA rookie season less than a month away, decisions are necessarily coming together quickly. Over the last couple weeks, Ko has signed with IMG and announced an endorsement deal with Australian and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ). New Zealand media also is reporting that she’s coming to terms on a new equipment deal with Callaway.
Ko told One Sport TV Monday that the coaching decision was all about her travel schedule. She’s looking for a United States base for her LPGA career. Leadbetter is based at ChampionsGate in Orlando, Fla.
“I’m going to be away from home, and I’m not a player that likes to not have my coach at tournaments,” Ko said. “So, it doesn’t really work, him being here and him coming on the weeks that I’m not playing a tournament. That means I’d only see him like 10 times a year, and to me, that kind of situation didn’t work out. So, that’s why I thought it might be better to have a coach somewhere in the United States.”
Ko said she intends to maintain a friendship with Wilson.
“It’s obviously sad to stop with Guy, because he’s been a great coach and a great friend as well,” Ko said. “But it’s important to know that we still are good friends.”
Michael Yim, Ko’s IMG agent, is in South Korea and couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Leadbetter said he understood the sensibilities that would be involved in Ko making a coaching switch.
Leadbetter and Hogan worked with Ko for three days at ChampionsGate last month. Ko won the Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters in Taiwan in her next start, the third professional event she won this year.
“This isn’t about re-inventing her swing,” Leadbetter said. “It’s about guiding, keeping her on track.”
Ko told One Sport she is hearing and reading speculation that a coaching change could be detrimental to the foundation of her quick rise.
“I’ve heard those rumors and tweets, where people say lots of people have left their coaches after they’ve succeeded and stuff,” Ko said. “But, to me, it’s not like I left him because he was a bad coach. It was because of the situation. We knew there was going to be a problem [with travel]. I know it’s a change, but fingers crossed that nothing bad happens.”
Ko’s legion of fans in New Zealand will be hoping for the best, too.